Events

The Top 10 Best Bodies of The Arnold Classic

We rank the best physiques to ever step on the Columbus, Ohio stage over the 25-year history of the biggest event in bodybuilding

February 4, 2014

By Jerry Kindela

When it comes to inspiring and influencing muscle warriors the world over, promoters Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Lorimer are without peer. Validation of their gold-standard reputation resides in the simple fact that 2014 marks the start of the second quarter century of their baby, the Arnold Sports Festival, formerly the Arnold Classic. The foundational linchpin of this multisport expo event (which features dozens of sports and some 18,000 competitors) is the bodybuilding throwdown that delivers a spectacle of surprise and awe onstage. Who knows which pro bodybuilder will turn heads, cause consternation or change the trajectory of physique development at this year’s competition? Perhaps some clues can be gleaned through our unapologetically subjective rating of the 10 best bodies in the contest’s history.

10. LEE LABRADA


leelabrada

NICKNAME: Mass With Class

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 184 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1985–1995

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: Second, 1993

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

Six total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
1986: First, Night of Champions
1989: Second, Mr. Olympia
1990: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: World-class condition and great proportions abetted by savvy, graceful posing

A legend, with nearly two-dozen pro and amateur titles to his credit, Lee Labrada competed twice in the Arnold Classic, in 1993 and 1995, which marked his final competition. Labrada’s strengths were his perfectly proportioned muscle, graceful symmetry, superb flowing lines (with one muscle group moving aesthetically into the next), well-separated muscle sections coupled with full-muscle bellies, and healthy-looking skin and complexion. He was a bodybuilder nonbodybuilders wished to emulate. He was also the consummate athlete-businessman who would launch the successful Labrada Nutrition company and eventually be named fitness czar by the mayor of Houston.

Labrada’s posing routine was majestic and powerful, with smooth transitions and movement designed to play to his vast number of strengths; his performances invariably received rousing cheers. His 1993 second-place Arnold finish was nothing to scoff at, as he held off some of the sport’s strongest and physically bigger stars, like Vince Taylor, Paul Dillett, Mike Matarazzo, Andreas Münzer and Alq Gurley — making Labrada more than worthy of inclusion on our list of Arnold Classic immortals.


9. PHIL HEATH


philheath

NICKNAME: The Gift

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 246 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 2006–present

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: Second, 2010

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

Nine total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
2006: First, New York Pro
2008: First, Ironman Pro
2011: First, Mr. Olympia; first,
Sheru Classic
2012: First, Mr. Olympia; first,
Sheru Classic
2013: First, Mr. Olympia; first, Arnold Classic Europe

BEST KNOWN FOR: Scary delts, huge arms, tiny waist and mind-blowing conditioning

In 2008, the Arnold barely slipped through Phil Heath’s fingers, earning Dexter Jackson his third title. According to many, the race was a near-tie. A few weeks earlier, it was said that Heath had been a bit crisper at the Ironman in Southern California, but at the Arnold, Jackson’s maturity and condition just barely elevated him to ascendancy. Or did it?

Following criticism that Heath simply wasn’t large enough to win the title after a fifth-place finish in 2007, he came in 20 pounds heavier in 2008, with eye-boggling separation and mass that reflected a future Mr. Olympia (the crown he claimed in 2011, 2012 and 2013).

And what about this? The final score sheet from the judging panel shows a whopping 17-point difference between the pair of competitors, something difficult to fathom in light of public consensus (cue the old saying “The audience is never wrong”) and Heath’s 20 pounds of precision muscle gain. Ultimately, he received a placing in this top lineup for the fact that he very well could, and possibly should, have won the Arnold in 2008. Let’s hope that his Mr. Olympia reign is tiger balm for the soul.


8. KEVIN LEVRONE


kevinlevrone

NICKNAME: Maryland Muscle Machine

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 240 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1992–2002

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 1994 and 1996

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

19 total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
1992: First, Grand Prix Germany; first, Night Of Champions
2000: Second, Mr. Olympia
2002: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: The complete package of size, symmetry and chiseled-in-stone detail

Two of Kevin Levrone’s 19 professional wins (he’s competed in some 50 IFBB pro events) include the Arnold Classic (1994, his first Arnold outing, and 1996). Levrone brought billowing muscle to the stage — full, ripe, symmetrical and balanced. Among the hallmarks of his unique physique were the thickness, cleanness and separation of his musculature.

When he worked the stage in 1994, his superior ham, glute and calf development; deeply cut front thighs with out-of-this-world sweep; magnificent triceps and biceps pushing paper-thin skin to the edge of explosion; massively bulbous, perfectly round and hyper-wide deltoids; and bone-dry condition separated him from the other battle-tested luminaries onstage. Not bad for a relative newcomer. Two years later, he’d repeat, toppling some of the most relevant physiques of the day, including Flex Wheeler, Paul Dillett, Vince Taylor and Shawn Ray.

In 2003, Kevin Levrone said adios to competition, hanging up his posing trunks, shedding a significant amount of that stunning hard-earned muscle and hitting Hollywood. Between 2006 and 2010, he appeared in a series of small feature films. Early on, Levrone had been hit by the performance bug; while still a professional competitor, Levrone and his metal/punk band, Fullblown, enjoyed a contract with Atlantic Records, releasing a CD (Mirage) and touring internationally. In 2009, he launched levronereport.com, a blog/advice column for bodybuilders. And most recently, rumors have spread about Levrone’s return to competitive bodybuilding in 2014.


7. RICH GASPARI


richgaspari

NICKNAME: The Dragon Slayer

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 225 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1985–1996

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 1989

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

Nine total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions.
1985: Second, Night of Champions
1986: Second, Mr. Olympia
1987: Second, Mr. Olympia
1988: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Redefining the word “shredded,” Larry Scott-like genetics and electrifying posing routine

Rich Gaspari’s win at the inaugural Arnold Classic in 1989 introduced new definitions of descriptors such as “hard,” “ripped,” “shredded” and “vascular,” and credit Gaspari with starting the phenomenon of shredded glutes, a commonplace artifact of present-day competition.

Here was a young upstart from New Jersey who simply refused to quit. Within five years of winning the World Amateur Championships in 1984, Gaspari’s drive, tenacity and consistent improvement in muscle size, separation, balance and symmetry helped him bag the Arnold. His performance in the 1989 event prompted Arnold to tell announcer Ahmad Rashad of NBC Sports World that during prejudging, Gaspari appeared to be the favorite, with the “most fire” and “most will to win.” At 5’7” or 5’8” or 5’9” (depending on the source) and 210 pounds, he bested stalwart competitors like Gary Strydom, Robbie Robinson, Bob Paris, Bertil Fox and Samir Bannout (who was a former Mr. Olympia champion).Gaspari himself would go on to place second at three Mr. O’s, competing in the event seven times. Additionally, he earned a total of nine professional wins and presently is owner of one of the most successful nutrition companies in the U.S. (Gaspari Nutrition). His fierce competitive spirit earned him the sobriquet “The Dragon Slayer.”

After his World Amateur win in 1984, one editor opined that Gaspari would never win another show, that he had reached the limit of his abilities. Just goes to show you what drives the true heart of bodybuilding — tenacity, consistency and belief in self.


6. SHAWN RAY


shawnray

NICKNAME: The Giant Killer

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 215 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1988–2001

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 1991

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

1990: First, Ironman Pro
1994: Second, Mr. Olympia
1996: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Unimpeachable balance and proportion, and truly artistic onstage presentation

With movie-star looks and a pleasing, near-flawless physique, Shawn Ray — dubbed “Fastest Lip in the West” for his endless chatter by bodybuilding writer/editor Peter McGough — has had a storied career, including a top five placement in 12 Mr. O’s. But Ray earns a spot in our top 10 list precisely because of the grace and beauty of his physique presence onstage, a not inconsiderable feat for the lightest competitor to ever win the Arnold Classic. And precisely for that reason, his 1991 win is a historic victory. (Incidentally, he accomplished this a mere four years after snagging the NPC National crown.)

Ray’s condition is truly the stuff of legend. He came to the Arnold proverbially sliced and diced yet showing full muscle groups, proportioned throughout with appealing vascularity. And with his posing, he showed off his entire physique in a way that only added to the advantage his well-wrought body delivered that night — that’s how one triumphs at his weight. Keep in mind that Ray competed just before the dawn of the size-at-all-cost period, which would by and large end the dominance of the X-frame era.


5. KAI GREENE


kaigreene

NICKNAME: The Predator

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 256 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 2005–present

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 2009–2010

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

Eight total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
2008, 2011: First, New York Pro, heavyweight
2012–2013: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Incredible level of muscularity, plus jaw-dropping posing routine

In 2008, Kai Greene established his right to stand onstage with other elite-level pros at the Arnold Classic, taking home third place. In 2009 and 2010, he proved himself deserving of the championship title. In his 2009 routine, weighing one-eighth of a ton of dense, striated, balanced muscularity, Greene moved like a man half his size. His posing reflected a fearlessness of movement rarely exhibited by other pro athletes in this weight range, most of whom churn out pose after pose with minimal thought to transition, surprise and the possibility inherent in posing. Greene turns posing into performance art. As Arnold told him at the final presentation, “You are the best poser I have ever seen.”

Greene’s thickness continues to inspire awe, particularly the ultradevelopment found on his back. The detail continues the entire span in bundles, packets, rivers and ravines of highly etched muscle. His contracted thigh reveals a sweep as serrated as his teardrop, not an easy condition to achieve. And there’s something distinctly menacing about his oversized hair bun, which conceals a Predator-like braid when unbundled. It’s as if he’s telling the other competitors onstage, “Yes, I am dangerous.”


4. JAY CUTLER


jaycutler

NICKNAME: Cuts

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 266 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1998–present

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 2002–2004

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

15 total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
2000: First, Night of Champions
2001, 2003–2005, 2008, 2011: Second, Mr. Olympia
2003: First, Ironman Pro, Grand Prix England, Grand Prix Holland
2006: First, Grand Prix Austria, Grand Prix Holland, Grand Prix Romania
2006–2007, 2009–2010: First, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Overpowering muscle mass and hardness, and feral competitiveness

At his 2002 venture on the Arnold stage, Cutler made the unarguable statement that he was the bodybuilder to contend with, both at that show and in the future. At the risk of using very old industry clichés, he was simply barn-door wide and carried cannonball delts, and was a staggering sight to behold. Cutler’s thigh thickness — with skin-splitting outer sweep and medialis that looked surgically implanted, and calves that showed sweep visible all the way to the back row of Veterans Memorial Auditorium — signaled the rise of a genuine superstar.

This may have been among Cutler’s hardest-looking appearances ever. His crab shot in particular made you feel as if his skin would split, rending open and spewing large chunks of dense muscle tissue across the audience like watermelon at a Gallagher Sledge-O-Matic routine. Onstage, he simply eclipsed all others. The Massachusetts-born mass monster — who fittingly worked in his family’s concrete construction business starting at age 11 — claimed two subsequent wins (2003 and 2004), giving him the all-time consecutive-wins record at the Arnold, a mark unlikely to be broken anytime soon.


3. DEXTER JACKSON


dexterjackson2

NICKNAME: The Blade

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 218 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1999–present

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2013

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

19 total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
2002: First, Grand Prix England
2003: First, Show of Strength
2004: First, Ironman Pro, Grand Prix Australia
2007, 2008, 2013: First,
Grand Prix Australia
2008: First, Grand Prix New Zealand, Grand Prix Romania, Mr. Olympia
2011: First, FIBO Germany, Masters Pro World
2012: First, Masters Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Ridiculously razor-sharp cuts that enhanced his impressive proportions and muscularity

With four official first-place outings at the Arnold, Dexter rises to the pantheon of consistent winners at the annual March musclefest in Columbus. It was no cakewalk to return to competition in 2013 after a five-year hiatus and then win it (at age 43!), but Jackson’s perseverance has as much cachet as his moniker “The Blade.”

One could build a case that Jackson should have a fifth Arnold crown on his mantelpiece for being overlooked in 2004, even though the judges awarded a streamlined Jay Cutler the title (and gave second to ever-the-bridesmaid Chris Cormier).

A mere comparison of the side-chest pose (you can pick any pose, really) of all three competitors goes a long way toward showing how much fuller, rounder and thicker Jackson appeared that year. His upper chest was fleshy and thick across the span of the clavicles; his upper arms (from triceps to biceps) evidenced more girth, detail and requisite peaks; and his thigh width and density combined with exquisite detail showed more maturity. In general, The Blade looked more complete aesthetically, yet that wasn’t enough for the judges, who clearly believed that bigger was better, even if not quite so perfect.


2. FLEX WHEELER


flexwheeler

NICKNAME: Sultan of Symmetry

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 232 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1993–2001

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

16 total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
1993: First, Grand Prix Germany, Grand Prix France; second, Mr. Olympia
1993, 1995-1998: First, Ironman Pro
1993, 1998-1999: Second, Mr. Olympia
1996: First, Night of Champions
2000: First, Grand Prix Hungary

BEST KNOWN FOR: Size, symmetry, muscularity and amazing flexibility — he could do complete splits onstage

The manner in which one muscle group flowed into the next, the way each muscle belly balanced perfectly with not only the adjacent group but the entire physique, the small joints, the crisp muscularity, the lack of protruding belly and one of the best X-frame structures to grace a bodybuilding stage — these were hallmarks of the Flex Wheeler physique, on display at the 1993 Arnold rendition. To some observers, this was arguably the most beautiful physique ever, rivaling, if not transcending, the accessible-looking anatomies stretching back to the Steve Reeves era.

Two of the sport’s acknowledged posing wizards at the time, Lee Labrada and Vince Taylor, appeared onstage at the 1993 Arnold, yet Wheeler’s posing outmatched the smooth moves of even those two virtuosos. To the refrain of approving catcalls from the women in attendance, Wheeler moved powerfully yet with a grace that bordered on the sensuous. This combination allowed him to show off his incredible muscularity and fluidity, not to mention his stunning flexibility — Arnold voiced amazement at Wheeler’s splits to NBC SportsWorld, which telecast the event.

Wheeler claimed to have practiced for hours in the posing room at Gold’s Gym, Venice, crunching down on his muscles and holding each pose until the tissue could no longer contract. This may explain why even his most intense poses seemed so effortless, accompanied by what appeared to be a stress-free smile.

Wheeler carried the title three more times (1997, 1998, 2000), but this singular showing in 1993 earns him second place in our tally of winners.


1. RONNIE COLEMAN


ronniecoleman

NICKNAME: Big Ron, The King

COMPETITION WEIGHT: 297 pounds

YEARS ACTIVE AS A PRO: 1992–2008

BEST PLACING AT THE ARNOLD CLASSIC: First, 2001

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

26 total first-place finishes in IFBB competitions
1997: First, Grand Prix Russia
1998–2005: First, Mr. Olympia
1998: First, Toronto Pro, Night of Champions, Grand Prix Germany, Grand Prix Finland
1999–2000, 2004: First, Grand Prix England
2002, 2004: First, Grand Prix Holland
2003-2004: First, Grand Prix Russia
2006: Second, Mr. Olympia

BEST KNOWN FOR: Great V-taper, massive upper chest and tremendous back detail

In a typical year, the reigning muscle champion needs to do only one thing— defend his title. Casting caution to the wind in 2001, Ronnie Coleman entered the two toughest, most prestigious bodybuilding events held each year: the Mr. Olympia, in defense of his title, and earlier in the year, the Arnold Classic, perhaps to prove that he was in fact the undisputed number one.

With Jay Cutler hot on Coleman’s heels that year, prepping for the Mr. O would have been challenging enough. But choosing to prep for the equally difficult Arnold earlier in the year was a risky (and to some observers, a foolhardy) venture. The fans, of course, loved Coleman’s swaggering confidence.

Despite the concerns and questions, Coleman proved himself Master of the Bodyverse, appearing majestic and supreme, especially during prejudging. No matter what tie-ins one gawked at, his detail was razor sharp. At 247 pounds (lighter than in subsequent contests), Coleman was a Himalaya of muscle, top to bottom, with muscle sections layered and packed side-by-side, and outstandng balance and symmetry for someone standing 5’11”. (Coleman topped the field six months later at the Mr. Olympia, edging out Cutler, although not everyone agreed with that finish.)

For many, Ronnie Coleman’s condition at the 2001 Arnold was his finest ever. He arguably earns first-place honors among all who have appeared on the Arnold Classic stage.

*Jerry Kindela was a principal on the founding team of Flex magazine, eventually helming it as editor in chief during its fastest period of growth.